Review by Gary Spiller for MPM
Robert Jon and The Wreck, highly accomplished exponents of blue-collar Southern Blues hollering out of SoCal, are a band in the ascendancy of which there’s no debate.
These five hard-working chaps are coming to the tail-end of their current UK tour. A dozen dates that has seen them tear up and sell-out venues up and down the length of the UK.
The celebrious interior, with an art deco underpinning, of Gloucester’s Guildhall seem well suited to their West Coast vibes as a most healthy sized crowd, with an equally healthy age demographic, packs itself in. This evening The Guildhall seems a happy place; people are smiling freely and are very chatty. We are not without conversation, there’s a tangible buzz within its grade II architecture.
Make absolutely no bones about it, when these guys tour, they TOUR!! Last year’s European tour saw them squeeze in a mammoth 67 shows in just under 11 weeks across eight countries. Ensuring that their UK leg ends on a truly high note this evening’s very well attended show slots neatly in between sell-outs in Hartlepool and Sittingbourne. With a back catalogue of seven studio albums, stretching over more than a decade of recording, this is a band that simply loves playing live.
Special guests for the entire European Tour are Meghan Parnell and Dave Barnes from Toronto soul-infused blues rocking septet Bywater Call. A completely unknown quantity the duo, within 30 seconds, held me, along with a high percentage of the audience, captivated. Rooted to the spot, spellbound, by Meghan’s gritty soul vocal. Redolent of the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin with a modern rasp of the likes of Kira Mac I’m under the spell. Rapidly I draw the conclusion that Meghan can blast out a tune with a high degree of control and apparent ease.
Alongside this stunning vocalist guitarist / percussionist Dave Barnes delivers a raw, arenaceous desert-driven acoustic tone. It’s rich in texture yet seemingly uncomplex; the very beauty of passion and soul. At a couple of junctures during their mesmerising half-hour Meghan mentions that they can’t wait to bring over the entirety of their seven-piece back to the UK.
Judging by the amount of merch being snapped up these dates, projected for early to mid-October, are going to be highly anticipated by a good many folks here tonight.
The duo’s opening track, I discover later from Meghan, is a brand-new one tentatively, at this time, ‘Been Gone. With a freight-train rhythm that complements the gravelly edged vocals it’s a track that enthrals in consummate fashion.
Dipping into their most recent album Dave and Meghan enwrap soul in a tasty southern coating in ‘Left Behind’ which precedes the titular track. A number that Meghan explains “[We] wrote it before covid, made it the first song we recorded for the second album. The chorus has become an anthem.” As pure as the dew upon the mountain meadow ‘Remain’ is serene in its mercurial mindset.
“We’re gonna do a little blues for yas” Meghan announces, adding, in deep, sincere respect, “In tribute to Robert Johnson and all those who suffered to bring us the roots of rock n’ roll.” Dipped into the bayou we’re treated to a medley of Hambone Willie Newbern’s ‘Rollin’ and Tumblin’ (which RJ adapted in 1936) and ‘Come On In My Kitchen.’ The latter, recognised as a Johnson masterpiece, readily reworked in an up-tempo slab of the most delicious of 12 bar blues. This is what occurs when pacts are signed at the meeting point of roads.
Reflecting back to their eponymous 2019 debut the coupling of the soulful growling blues of ‘Over and Over’ and the Cajun twist of ‘Silver Lining.’ The latter drawing comparisons to the delightful Americana offerings of the graceful Elles Bailey. It’s been a wondrous half hour which has whetted the appetite for when the full band returns to our shores in the autumn.
Formed in California’s Orange County back in early 2011 Robert Jon and The Wreck are an industrious bunch. They wear their influences as badges of honours, campaign medals of a mellifluous sort. Hats are doffed, collectively, towards the likes of Lynyrd Skynyrd, ZZ Top, The Allman Brothers, Black Crowes but ultimately this is a 21st century baton-carrying entity. Seven studio albums in addition to a couple of compilations that shine a spotlight upon early EPs and live Lockdown performances present an extensive back catalogue from which to make set selections from.
By the time the house and stage fade into tenebrious shades the Guildhall is neatly packed. Surely close to sell-out. The awe-struck feelings of ‘Rocky Mountain Way’ accompany the band as they, one by one, assemble under the blue lighting. With a crashing of drums and a roar of guitars Robert Jon and The Wreck announce their arrival. Boom!
The keys of newest member Jake Abernathie swirl like an autumnal mist as the strains of ‘Pain No More’ – one of a number of singles from last year – take us along ‘Wrecking Way’ with respectful deference to past masters The Eagles and Lynyrd Skynyrd. Slick slide from Henry James Schneekluth dovetails sweetly with the brusque vocals of Robert Jon Burrison.
Slipping seamlessly The Wreck, via the pounding partnership of Andrew Espantman’s drums and the bass of Warren Murrel, hit up the wistful ‘Do You Remember.’ Chockful of blue-collar teenage memories this melding of the Allmans’ tone, with its twin guitar phases, and Springsteen-inspired lyrics takes us to a much-wished for time. “Do you remember being free, young, wild and seventeen?” sings Robert Jon. We dust off the photo-album and look back smiling through the delectable haze of this vivacious 70s vibrancy.
In the depths of the hall someone shouts “We love you Robert!” Without missing a beat RJ, looking out from underneath his trademark headwear, smiles and replies “We love you too man!” It’s these unscripted moments that encapsulate the soul and spontaneity of live rock n’ roll.
Counted in on a “1-2, 1-2-3-4” appropriately punchy drums entwine with driving keys to bring in ‘She’s A Fighter.’ ‘Freewaying’ blue rocking, faster than a southbound train, of the highest calibre gets the ever-smiling Warren high-kicking.
Adding some prominent ‘easy sunny side up’ keys to ‘When I Die’ is a deft stroke of genial grace before we’re hitting the mainline with ‘Rescue Train’, another of the bountiful clutch of singles from 2022. In between RJ humorously requests “Mr. Haze man can you cut the haze down please? I’ve smoked enough today. Plus I can’t see these lovely people” motioning at the packed venue. White spots, in response, illuminate the audience much to RJ’s pleasure.
Off their eponymous 2018 album the jazzy blues feel of ‘High Time’ brings in a Hill Street Blues kind of seismic vibe. There are jams aplenty as the band, unified, notch up through the gears. Switching stateside coasts, heading out west, the soulful, emotive ballad ‘Gold’ drops the tempo for an interlude. Such is the magnificent control of delivery.
The Eagles undercurrent of the last of 2022’s singles ‘Who Can You Love’ equates to a gentle Southern country rocker. A track that brings the feeling of the wind as the v-twin throbs compliantly along the open Arizona highway.
It’s soothing yet conflagrant simultaneously. As the set winds to its conclusion the tempo is raised to melting point with the utterly luscious ‘Oh Miss Carolina.’ Paired up with the divinely riotous ‘Shine a Light on Me Brother’ this should be the curtain call. However, there’s even higher planes to explore. Before that ‘Shine a Light’ sees Jake and Elwood ‘taxiing’ Aretha and Ray in the 1933 Ford Eliminator of ZZ Top fame.
The roof is brought down with an extended visitation into the southern realms of ‘Cold Night’; Henry’s fretwork smokes in a Hendrix-fashion as the band go into ‘heads down’ jam mode for a searing Skynyrd / Allmans celestial level segment. No script required, no gadgetry just good ol’ rocking right from the soul and heart. Simply splendid and there’s surely no better method to bring the main set to a crescendo.
The band haven’t yet departed the stage and the assembled ranks in the Guildhall are demanding further. Stomping feet, chanting nobody is going anywhere! The encore is firmly requested. Returning, to an exceptionally loud roar, the band duly oblige. They have a finger upon the pulse and elevate proceedings even higher.
We’re treated to both parts of the exceptionally emotional ‘Last Light On The Highway.’ Plugging in his ‘Firebird’ Henry lends a Zeppelin-esque depth to this stunning piece that meanders and cascades in precisely the correct places. At times brooding and melancholic this mega-opus, at others, soars as the fiery phoenix. With a slight prog element it ascends into a rumbustious rocker possessing a goliath beat. Glorious in its majesty. Clocking in at a mammoth 15 minutes plus we’re transported into a wondrous environ where, with soulful decorum, limits aren’t recognised.
This has been a veritable masterclass just quarter of an hour shy of two hours. Spellbinding, captivating and heartfelt Robert Jon and The Wreck ensure a totally content and satiated crowd spill out into the night air. Announced for the Maid Of Stone festival – headlining the Phoenix Stage – The Wreck return in late July. One hopes for further dates alongside this prestigious booking.
Photography by Kelly Spiller for MPM